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South Korea's 'Weasel' ferrets out the funny

Wildly popular podcast host Kim Ou-joon takes on any and all politicians, but his favorite target is President Lee Myung-bak. It's a daring move in a country with little tradition of political humor.

November 18, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Kim Ou-joon, an outspoken and influential South Korean political commentator who spreads his barb-filled humor through a weekly podcast called "I'm a Weasel," is wildly popular, except with the politicians who fall under his withering criticism.
Kim Ou-joon, an outspoken and influential South Korean political commentator… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Seoul — Every week, Kim Ou-joon does what was once unthinkable in South Korea: He gleefully lampoons the president.

At the start of a recent installment of Kim's wildly popular political podcast, "Naneun Ggomsuda," or "I'm a Weasel," the narrator intoned with mock-solemnity: "Wall Street is occupied by protesters while Korea is peaceful and quiet. That's natural because Korea is heaven on earth!

"Our president can cross the river on a bridge of fallen autumn leaves."

Next, listeners heard the name of President Lee Myung-bak repeated in a series of goofy vocal stylings that alternately imitated Alvin the Chipmunk, whining children and, finally, Bela Lugosi.

South Korea's younger generation loves every minute of it.

Kim, 42, is South Korea's foremost Internet rebel, a satirist who lights into any elected official he sees as insincere, greedy or out of touch. He most often aims his barbs at Lee, a gutsy move in a country with little tradition of political humor.

In the world's most wired nation — 99% of people younger than 40 regularly use the Internet and 4 in 10 people own a smart phone — Kim has used digital media to rally disenfranchised youths in a challenge to the status quo, and caught the establishment flat-footed.

His free weekly audio podcast, which can be downloaded from Apple's iTunes store and Kim's website, combines Jon Stewart pithiness and "Saturday Night Live" slapstick.

The unscripted program features Kim and a supporting cast — a former legislator, an investigative reporter and a radio producer — in a format that is equal parts talk show, rant session and comedy skits.

They blow off steam and spew obscenities. They refer to Lee as "His Highness" and "our morally perfect president." One character belittles Lee, who is a Protestant church elder, by singing bawdy songs to the tune of church hymns.

The show ranks as the world's most popular political podcast, with 2 million weekly downloads, according to statistics from iTunes.

Analysts say Kim was largely responsible for the decisive turnout of young voters in Seoul's recent mayoral election, in which the ruling Grand National Party candidate was soundly defeated by a little-known left-wing activist. The matchup was seen as a bellwether of sorts for next year's presidential race.

When Kim recently announced a nationwide series of appearances, the first venue sold out within minutes. His newly published manifesto, "Shut up, Politics," quickly became the nation's top-selling nonfiction book.

Kim's humor is considered over the top in a nation where anyone younger than 40 is expected to respect their elders. That explains why "I'm a Weasel" has triggered a political backlash, even legal repercussions.

Kim and his co-hosts have been indicted for allegedly spreading false information that the ruling party's unsuccessful candidate in the mayoral race ran up a $100,000 annual bill at a skin-care clinic.

After the election, Lee's administration warned South Korean celebrities against sending Twitter messages during future elections to encourage their fans to cast ballots. Celebrity tweets, the administration said, unduly influenced the mayoral vote.

The government has also appointed a panel to monitor online content, including what one conservative newspaper termed "loudmouth talk show hosts," a reference to Kim.

Kim revels in the outcast role. He has a shaggy-dog head of hair, a wispy goatee and mournful eyes. A Lark cigarette dangles from his lips. He agrees he's a loudmouth.

His lips pursed in a sneer, Kim says he welcomes the fight with the president's office. In recent podcasts, he has exhorted listeners not to back down when it comes to free speech.

"He's just stupid if he thinks he can control the Internet," Kim said of Lee. "That's why I encourage people to stand up for their rights. I welcome the attempts to silence us. It furthers our cause."

*

The child of politically conservative parents from a small town, Kim is at a loss to explain the origins of his in-your-face activism. But he says his mother and father always allowed him and his younger sister the freedom to form their own opinions about the world.

As a teenager, Kim bridled at what he saw as his homeland's knee-jerk patriotism, evident when citizens reflexively put hand on heart to honor the flag — even in the adult theaters Kim used to sneak into.

"I looked around and realized that there was nothing I couldn't do, nothing I shouldn't do," he said. "I was responsible for my own actions."

After studying engineering in college, he traveled abroad extensively. Upon his return, his countrymen seemed to him as politically naive as ever: Voters blindly followed petty bureaucrats. Businessmen who gained public office were corrupted by even minute amounts of power.

"It was embarrassing to live in a country with such an unsophisticated, country-bumpkin approach to politics," he said.

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